Fossil Trove Reveals 'Elephants,' Rhinos, Camels, and More Once Roamed Texas

©. Glen Evans (left), who managed much of the Works Progress Administration's effort to collect Texas fossils, carrying a fossil with a worker. (The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences)

Tucked away since the late 1930s, a huge haul of fossils shows that the state's coastal plains were a veritable "Texas Serengeti."

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) came up with all kinds of jobs to help Americans make a living. During its eight years of existence, the federal agency put some 8.5 million people to work. While the WPA is best known for its big public works and infrastructure work, other projects were sponsored as well. One such project may not have garnered much attention back in the day, but thanks to a team of modern-day researchers, the fruits of that work are now getting the attention they deserve.

The project was the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey, funded by the WPA in partnership with The University of Texas (UT) Bureau of Economic Geology. From 1939 to 1941, unemployed Texans got to don their paleontology hats and become fossil hunters, collecting fossils and minerals across the state.

Tens of thousands of specimens were discovered. And while some of them have been studied here and there, most of them have just sat in storage in the state collections of UT Austin for the past 80 years.

But then along came Steven May, a research associate at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, who decided to dig in, so to speak, and see what was there. While certain groupings had been researched before, he decided to look at the fauna as a whole. He studied and identified a collection of fossils that came from dig sites near Beeville, Texas.

Amazingly, he has found that the area was a veritable "Texas Serengeti" – including elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators, antelopes, camels, 12 types of horses and several species of carnivores.

texas fauna

© An artist's interpretation of ancient North American fauna based on the UT research. (Jay Matternes/ The Smithsonian Institution)

“In total, the fossil trove contains nearly 4,000 specimens representing 50 animal species, all of which roamed the Texas Gulf Coast 11 million to 12 million years ago,” explains UT in statement.

"It's the most representative collection of life from this time period of Earth history along the Texas Coastal Plain," says May.

Not only are the fossils important for the breadth of fauna they are revealing, but they also include some fossil firsts, explains UT, “like a new genus of gomphothere, an extinct relative of elephants with a shovel-like lower jaw, and the oldest fossils of the American alligator and an extinct relative of modern dogs.”

UT fossils

© The skull of a shovel-jawed gomphothere (bottom) collected by WPA fossil hunters is still wrapped in its field jacket. (The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences)

Given that the collection is so extensive, there is still a wealth of specimens secured in their original plaster field jackets, waiting to be prepared for future research. Lab managers Deborah Wagner and Kenneth Bader are overseeing their preparation. Wagner points out that the benefits of unpacking the fossils all these decades later is that they now have the modern technology to research the specimens in ways which would have been impossible before.

"We are able to preserve more detailed anatomy and answer questions that require higher resolution data," she said.

As for May, he says that he plans to continue to study the collection as additional fossils are prepared. More mysteries of the Texas Serengeti wait to be revealed ... and the hard work of legions of out-of-work Texans is finally getting its due.

May's paper describing the fossils, their collection history and geologic setting can be found in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.